Transportation bill is an opportunity to rethink federal spending

By Jason Grumet and Emil Frankel

A strong, modern and efficient transportation system is good for everyone in the United States regardless of politics, geography or profession. Almost every American uses the road and rail network paid for with the help of federal dollars. Last year we logged 2.9 trillion vehicle miles on our roads, and in New York City alone, people boarded the subway 1.6 billion times.

That is why, for the last 50 years, paying for our transportation infrastructure has invariably been a bipartisan effort, with funding for roads, bridges and trains widely supported by both parties in both houses of Congress.


That tradition continued last week when the Senate overwhelmingly approved a $109 billion highway bill first drafted by Democrat Barbara Boxer and Republican James Inhofe. The two senators who in many ways symbolize the most conservative and most liberal wings of their respective parties struck a bipartisan compromise that’s most rare these days.

So it was with great disappointment that we’ve watched the companion legislation in the House get bogged down in the partisan bickering that has stalled many good ideas and eroded the goodwill that sustains our system of government.

Instead of emulating the Senate, the House transportation committee approved a bill on a party-line vote and House Republicans promised to tack on provisions to stop setting aside federal gasoline taxes for public transit and to expand offshore oil drilling. Those measures, designed to attract Republican votes, drove Democrats away. This approach broke the half-century precedent of working across the aisle to pay for our nation’s transportation infrastructure.

The result was a partisan plan with no Democratic support whose price tag — $260 billion over five years — drove away too many Republicans to receive approval.

Some of the House’s broad goals — eliminating duplicative and wasteful programs and creating long-term certainty in the transportation budget — are admirable and broadly embraced. Pursing these shared goals through a divisive process is unnecessary and unfortunate.

Few doubt that our nation’s transportation infrastructure is in sore need of an upgrade. This critical national asset, which is essential to the success of every enterprise in this country, is not keeping up with our growing economy and population. At the same time, gas tax revenues are lagging in part because of the increased fuel efficiency of our vehicles. The default response, to rely on general tax revenue, is unwise and unsustainable.

We believe there’s a need for more investment in surface transportation, yet we also understand the very real need to cut the deficit and the debt. In the current political and economic climate, there’s little apparent taste to increase the federal motor fuels taxes either in the Administration or in Congress. That leaves us with the imperative to pay for the roads, bridges, trains and buses that we need while keeping costs at manageable levels.

The Bipartisan Policy Center has laid out a plan that meets these requirements. Our proposal, developed by former elected officials, transportation experts, and a diverse group of civic, labor, and business leaders ties transportation spending more closely to the revenues that are collected specifically for highways, transit and other transportation infrastructure. Lawmakers, if they are so inclined, can embrace it without continuing the partisan fight.

The basic premise of our plan is that Congress must define specific priorities for transportation funding and then the trust-fund money will go to meet those goals. BPC proposed five goals: economic growth; national connectivity; metropolitan accessibility; energy security and environmental protection; and safety.

Testing each spending proposal against these goals eliminates pet-projects that serve no national interest and cuts funding that goes to states simply to create an aura of fairness. The largest program that we eliminate is the Equity Bonus Program, which allocates more than $9 billion a year to projects not on their merit but on returning to states federal revenues raised within their borders.

In the current budget environment, there’s no room for such programs.

In addition to eliminating programs and earmarks, the BPC proposal consolidates more than 100 surface transportation programs into 10. This simplification eliminates duplicative work and clarifies the goals of each program.

If implemented in 2013, the BPC proposal would align spending better with existing revenue, which today is about $40 billion a year, $14 billion less than is being spent on existing programs. The plan would allow more money to pour into much-needed transportation programs as funds become available.

The BPC believes the House would do well to adopt the current Senate plan, and could do better by improving on that bill with our bipartisan strategy. The worst result of the current debate would be to cut transportation funding without reforming the programs.

We recognize that asking Congress to vote for a transportation program that would cut funding and shift spending, perhaps away from their own states and favored projects, is not simple. The historic popularity of the surface transportation bill has come directly from the fact that it was concrete evidence of a lawmaker’s ability to bring home federal dollars.

However, if our elected leaders want to show their constituents that they hold the national good over their parochial or partisan interests, working across party lines to reform the federal highway program would be a good place to start.